I had dropped in on one of the Cree School Boards Council of Commissioners meetings a while back. There were the usual discussions you would expect at these meetings about local and regional budgets, the need for teachers, post-secondary education, continuing education and somehow they even managed to celebrate Chairperson Mabel Herodier’s birthday.

One of the topics that caught my ear was a request from Mistissini. During a Band meeting community members requested a local education conference and the movement of two pedagogical days to be able to hold the three-day meeting. After talking to Beverly Quinn, Mistissini’s commissioner, I was invited to drop by for the November 1-3 conference. It would be a conference that would involve parents, staff and teachers to discuss the local schools and how to improve them.

I walked into Voyager Memorial School and was amazed at the displays. Obviously there was a great team who came together to create interesting and informative booths. I grabbed stuff on bullying, study skills, internal directories, a 2000-2001 Parent Handbook, etc. I was impressed and could hardly wait to see what was happening.

I quickly found out that one of the main topics was the Mianscum report that the CSB had received in December 1999. The report talked about the successes the CSB has had, such as a good infrastructure, a decentralized administration and staffing.

Among the problems relating to the report to be discussed were the high drop out rate from the secondary and post-secondary programs, putting elementary students in the same building as secondary students, perception of schools as daycares and parental involvement in the school and with students.

I had a chance to talk to the author of the report Henry Mianscum.

The Nation: Who hosted the conference?

Mianscum: The conference was hosted by the Voyager Memorial school committee as well in part by the Cree School Board. This was pursuant to the local general assembly of Mistissini in which they wanted to bring out specific issues pertaining £o the problems in the school and the community. The local education conference was going to be used as one of the vehicles to try to address some of the problem areas and more or less come up with concrete solutions. Both short-term and long-term solutions. That was the essence of the conference. We were hoping that everyone would participate but with the Local Education Conference being a new concept, sometimes it takes a while for people to grasp what it can be used for. We believe that in time if we don’t stop with the Local Education Conferences or workshops we will in time know how to use it and what to expect of it. Perhaps we might get a better turnout.

You feel the turnout could have been better?

We believe it could have been better. If you take away the teachers, the regional staff of the CSB who helped in the planning and organizing of the Conference, if you take them away then it was a small crowd of parents. But don’t forget that employees of the CSB are also parents whose children go to that school. I guess we expected a lot more from the community but then and again it was not much different from having a Band meeting. Sometimes a very small number of people show up for these things. I don’t know if it was that we had a high expectation of participants, which is at fault, or whether we should focus on those people who are interested in showing up. Maybe that’s something we should be looking at.

Do you think those people will be bringing the message back into the community?

We hope and there’s only so much we can do. We can’t go and drag people into the conferences and workshops. It’s a false expectation if you do that. I think in time if you show. I think in time if you show some results coming from the workshops and people see that then you will see more people come out. They will start believing in these forums. I know at the Local Education Conference we expected some solid recommendations on how to deal with specific problems. We did get those and now it’s up to us to work on those. If we just leave it on a shelf people are right to stay away. But if we do actual work and people see those results then they’ll start believing in the process. It’s up to us to prove that it can be done.

What kind of problems were you looking at?

The regular so-called problems such as parental involvement. This is the biggest and perhaps number one issue that we want people to talk about. We each have our own responsibilities to the child’s education, be that at the home, community or the school. It’s difficult to try to read anybody’s mind as to what they want to say or what they think the problems are.

There are others too. What is being taught in the school, what curriculum are they following, the extent of the influx of elementary students into the secondary schools and what effect that has on the younger children and so forth. There are so many diverse areas of problems that we can look at. We all know that the success rates of our schools are very low. Something that we don’t want to persist. It’s something we want to improve. We can’t get any worse than are right now. But it’s a long-term effort. People can’t expect miracles in one month or even one year. It’s like planting a seed. You have to give it time. How well you nourish it is how well it will grow. This is what we have to do. We have to nourish our efforts as how to what we want and people have to keep working at it.

I notice there was reference made to the Mianscum Report. Could you give us a little background on it?

The report itself was complied on the information that was attained through community consultations in all of the nine Cree communities as well as in the post-secondary offices. It identified some problem areas in the domain of the CSB as well as within some schools. It was just in one area. We focused on the teachers. We focused on the students, the parents, the role of the community and so forth. There were so many issues that were brought up that it was unbelievable. We couldn’t put everything in one document. I think if I had it to do over again I think I would break it down into different sectors. I would do one specific area at a time.

This was a rich and rewarding experience because the information we got from the people was something that will stay with me for a long time. I know the prime problem areas are the success rates, the high absenteeism of both students and teachers and the absence of leadership in the schools.

Whoever it is that you are talking to will have a different problem to talk about from another group. For instance if you talk to a student they focus on what they as the role of their parents towards them or how good of a teacher they may have. If you talk to the parents it’s mostly that the school is not doing its part and so forth. It’s so diverse you can’t pinpoint the major problem. I think in all of the Cree communities the common problem that was raised was the lack of involvement by the parents. It seems to be the number one area. The second is communication. So we don’t communicate and that’s a problem we have to address. So this Conference is a means of communicating with the people. It’s a start to establishing that communications network. I can honestly say being involved with the Conference I’ve seen the interaction between the parents, the teachers and the organizers. It was quite something. Something we would like to see day after day.

Was this the first time that they had come together for that long?

Yes, but I think a three day conference is a little long. A two-day conference may be more productive in terms of time. By the third day people get a little tired and the issues being repeated become a little monotonous. If you cut down, a lot more could be done providing you don’t try to discuss everything under the sun in those two days. Be specific on what you want to address over the two days. Hold another two day conference down the road giving yourself time to start working on what on whatever’s been recommended.

So you see Local Education Conferences as being important for the communities?

Yes, they are. We can’t say we’ll be able to answer everybody’s concerns but it is a stepping-stone in the right direction. We may not deal with a specific issue at this time but in given months we will reach your given concern. It’s a long walk for progress and it’s a step-by-step process and along the way everybody has to do their part. It’s a false expectation to say the CSB is going to fix all the problems. The problems that the CSB can’t fix alone will end up always being there. The CSB can’t go into our houses and say you teach your child the way they should be as a parent. I don’t think the CSB has that responsibility, that’s parental responsibility. The CSB can’t go to a Band Council and say ‘you do this.’ It’s a local government responsibility. This is what I mean; it has to be done in partnership to achieve results. I see it as five-to-ten year effort. I’m glad that the CSB has taken the initiative when the statement was made by the Chairperson of CSB itself wants to see a 50 per cent improvement in the success rate of the Cree schools over a five year period. That’s a goal we should all work together to achieve. We shouldn’t dwell on what the problems are. We all know what the problems are. We have to be very creative in finding the solutions that will work.

Is there anything you would like to add?

If you look at the structure of the Local Education Conference, I can honestly say it would have never materialized if the local participation was not there. There were a lot of volunteers who put in time and effort. A lot of hours, up until midnight or later sometimes, to plan and organize this. Everything was done voluntary through the efforts of the community. Maybe we fell short of the expectations of some people, but the next time around we’ll improve. I can say I feel bad we didn’t meet everyone’s expectations with this conference but we tried. That’s the best that we have to offer now. The people that were involved, we thank them very much. There were teachers who worked until one’ o’clock in the morning. You don’t see that too often. Even the school commissioner, who is a volunteer to begin with, gave up many hours of family time to come and help out with the Conference. Many of the CSB staff came and helped out, the local staff and the regional staff.

It seemed, watching them, that the easiest part was to come and attend. The hard work is what you don’t see sometimes and that is usually the easiest part to criticize. I don’t think it’s fair but it happens, I guess. I want to thank all the people involved and next time around we’ll have more people and hopefully get better results in order to answer everyone’s expectations.